Google’s relationships with universities

David Harper, head of university relationships for EMEA for Google, visited the Engineering Department this week, talking to researchers and also explaining in a seminar how and why Google engages with universities, their philosophy and the specific mechanisms.

He began by explaining key elements of Google’s corporate philosophy – these are important to understand how best to approach working with Google.

  • Focus on the user – although Google is interested in a wide range of technologies (from software and algorithms to infrastructure and operations) always ask how this will affect the user and the user experience.
  • Faster is better – not just for users but also for working with Google
  • There’s always more information out there and Google works across geographies and cultures – so keep sight of the bigger picture and keep looking for new opportunities.
  • ‘Great isn’t good enough’ – so be ambitious in your research and in what you might want to do with Google.

Google is populated by scientists and engineers.  It’s a numerate culture that seeks hard evidence for decision-making.  Coupled with the focus on the user, this leads to the question of ‘how will you demonstrate the performance of your research and its value to the user?’

The pragmatic culture leads to two other key points.  ‘Demos not documents’.  Proposals will be brief and the key interest is in an early demonstration that shows what’s proposed and enables people to engage.  Decision-making is by consensus and involves the engineers within Google.  So you need to find enthusiasts and supporters for your idea and be prepared to demonstrate its impact – PowerPoint will not win the day.

Google also prefers to build long-term relationships with individuals.  Yes, they talk to the university corporately, but the real excitement lies in working closely with the most capable people on the best research.  It is these long-term relationships that allow the richest engagement, extending to internships, secondment and other means to best sharing insights and ideas from both sides.

So, with that context in place, David went on to explain why Google engages with universities.  They see it as important to maintain the research base and to support the source of their workforce and of innovation.  They also support outreach into schools and the whole STEM agenda for the same reasons.  To stay focused, Google works with relatively few, carefully chosen partner universities – the best across Europe and elsewhere.

Inevitably, the topic of IP came up.  As you’d expect from the context, Google is very flexible.  They see their support as ‘gifting’ and don’t seek to own the IP.  They’d like to be offered good terms should there be IP to be licensed – but see that as all part of a developing relationship.  Yes, they do commission ‘contract research’ – but that is a very different animal; focused on specific objectives and timescales with the IP then belonging to Google.

In detail, Google runs the following programmes (you can get more detail at

  • research_at_googleFaculty Research Awards: an open competition with calls in April and October each year.  It is targeted on funding PhDs for a year, but it is worth exploring with Google how this can be flexed.  As you might imagine, Google’s focus is on building a relationship with an excellent individual.
  • Focused Awards: by invitation with established partners to enable individual researchers to work with great flexibility on topics of mutual interest (Zoubin Gharamani has recently received such an award for his continuing work in Bayesian machine learning)
  • PhD Fellowships: 3 years of support in nominated areas, by invitation and very competitive (about 15 awards pa across 35 universities/departments).    They require the student to be in place and, again, it’s all about building a relationship with the best.

Google also embraces knowledge transfer with bilateral visits and talks, a ‘faculty summit’ for 100+ invited academics from across EMEA, and a programme of events for students and scholarships supported by Google.

So, how best to begin engaging with Google?  Start at the bottom.  Find engineers and researchers (the distinction is blurred within Google) who are interested in your area of research and who might be interested in working with you.  A key to success in working with Google is to have an enthusiastic sponsor within the company.

And how to find what they might be interested in?  Create opportunities for conversations – invite them to workshops and seminars, offer to provide talks, and attend conferences at which they may be speaking.

Overall, a picture of flexibility and agility, of long-term bilateral relationships between individuals, working on topics of shared interest with increasing openness as mutual understanding of research competence and direction is built.


Author: innovationcoaching

I consult and coach in innovation and its management, based in the UK but working nearly anywhere. This blog is just a few musings, observations and evolving thinking. I look forward to your comments

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